By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Response: Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9; Second Reading: Romans 13:8-10; Gospel: Matthew18:15-20
Ezekiel, both priest and prophet, was among 8,000 exiles taken to Babylon (Iraq today) after the first surrender of the Kingdom of Judah to the Babylonian army in 598 B.C. (See 2 Kings 24:10-16). Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry began among the exiles in 593 B.C. The story of his first call to this mission is found in Ezekiel 1:1-3, 21. In 586 B.C., he must have needed a recharging of his prophetic batteries and was recommissioned (Ezekiel 33:1-9 and 33:21). His last dated oracle was in 371 B.C., and is found in 29:17. Our first reading is in the context of his second commissioning. Though he was far way in Babylon, he was commanded by the Lord to speak to a looming crisis back in Jerusalem. The Babylonian army was besieging Jerusalem, and it was about to fall. It may have been too late to avert the danger, but he had to try once more to warn the leaders of Jerusalem who brought their city to its doom, from which it would not recover for many years.
As the first reading opens, the Lord addresses Ezekiel: “You, son of man….” Meaning: “You, human being;” not the most endearing way to open a conversation or monologue. Ezekiel gets a specific mission in a final effort to avoid the catastrophe in Jerusalem: “I have appointed you a watchman (sentry) for the house of Israel. When you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” Recall that the house of Israel was, at that time, divided between those back in Jerusalem and those in exile with Ezekiel in Babylon. When the Lord wants this message relayed, “O wicked one, you will surely die,” the delivery of the message becomes a loaded responsibility for Ezekiel. This is not dissimilar to what we take upon ourselves when we pray, in the Our Father, “Forgive us our trespasses as (like) we forgive those who trespass against us.” We get forgiveness if we give forgiveness. God makes the rules when he appoints someone to a job, so here is the deal for Ezekiel: “If you do not try to dissuade the wicked one from his way, and the wicked one dies guilty, you are responsible for his death. But if you do your job, trying to turn him from his wicked way, and he refuses to comply, he will die guilty, but I won’t blame you for it.” Ezekiel duly issued the warning, which must have been taken by courier to Jerusalem. It was too late. A fugitive arrived in Babylon in December 586, with this report: “The city has been taken.”
The people’s response to Ezekiel’s message is a perfect fit, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” This psalm is familiar, to those who pray the Divine Office daily, as the prayer opening morning praise. In the final verses chosen for the response, there is reference to an example of the hardening of hearts, “as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert when your fathers tempted me, they tested me….” The two Hebrew nouns mean “testing” and “strife.” What happened? The Israelites grumbled against God and Moses because of lack of water when they camped near Mt. Sinai (Horeb) (Exodus 17:1-7).
St. Paul continues his exhortation to the Christians of Rome. He has just defended civil authority as an appointment coming from God. This was two years before those same civil authorities put him to death. We cannot know if that would have influenced his advice in another direction. This upholding of civil authority leads him to digress into relationship between law and love. “Owe no one anything except to love one another” — not always easy with civil authority. How is this accomplished? By doing the commandments. He sums up the commandments in just one. Quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It has been noted before that Matthew arranged some sets of material in his gospel into five major discourses (sermons) of Jesus. Thus far, we have encountered three: the Sermon on the Mountain in chapters 5-7; the Missionary Instructions in chapter 10; and the parables in chapter 13. Today, we enter the fourth discourse. It is called Community Regulations. Among these regulations we see in today’s gospel reading are the rules for correcting fellow members of a “parish,” a Christian community. The first rule: “If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he accepts your correction, you have gained your brother.” The words “against you” are omitted in many ancient manuscripts, but are thought to have crept into the text through addition by a copyist. The omission fits the context, since it concerns an offense against the whole community. Sirach 19:13-18 can serve as a commentary on this issue. The second rule: “If he does not accept correction, take one or two others with you, so that every fact will be established on the testimony of ... witnesses.” This rule is based on Deuteronomy 19:15, which required at least two witnesses to convict someone of an offense.
The third rule: If the offender has not complied, “Tell the church,” meaning the whole congregation or elected elders gathered to hear the case. If this does not bring correction (repentance?), “Treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Was it really necessary to be so offensive to these two classes of people as outsiders? Here, it is a way of saying that the offender is excluded from his former community — a shunning or early form of excommunication. For a specific case of excommunication, see 1 Corinthians 5:1-9. For a case of shunning, see the Second Letter of John, verses 10-11. Divine authority is given to the community decision: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.” This differs from the authority Jesus bestowed on Simon Peter in Matthew 16:17-19. The community does not receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The context of our reading indicates that the community has a God-given right to separate an erring member and reunite him or her after correction. In addition, where two or three Christians gather to pray about a matter, “It shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” Why? Because when Christians gather to pray, “there am I (Jesus) in the midst of them.”